Special Feature Specialty Cheese Editor

 

A Mystery Beyond The Midwest, Aged & Mild Brick Seen As An Untapped Market

Moira Crowley
Specialty Cheese Editor
Cheese Reporter Publishing Co., Inc.
mcrowley@cheesereporter.com • 608-316-3793

September 21, 2018

Familiar mostly to Midwest consumers, Brick cheese is quietly striving for a larger audience with new flavors, snack sizes and educational efforts to reach consumers beyond Wisconsin.

Brick cheese was originally produced in Wisconsin circa 1877, derived from white American Cheddar cultured at a slightly higher temperature, resulting in a marginally higher fat content and a slightly altered protein structure. The resultant “Brick” cheese has a slightly softer texture.

The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Statistics Service (NASS) reported the number of plants making Brick cheese ranged from 141 plants in 1950 to just 23 plants in 2017.

Production dropped from a record 28,939,000 in 1987 to a mere 2.4 million in 2017.

Per capita consumption has followed suit, from 0.10 pounds in 1970, 0.05 pounds in 1994, and 0.01 pounds in both 2015 and 2016.

“I think that the aged Brick sales have increased due to the fact that people are more adventurous and well-traveled – wanting to try new things with bolder flavors.”
—Joe Widmer, Widmer’s Cheese Cellers

Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer, owner of Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa, WI, said over the past decade he has seen an increase in the sales of aged Brick, and somewhat of a decline in mild Brick sales.

“It used to be the opposite in the 1980s and 1990s – the aged Brick sales were declining and we couldn’t keep up with mild Brick production,” he said.

“This was due to the old timers – especially Germans – who loved strong, washed-rind Brick,” Widmer continued. “At that time, the younger generation preferred a milder cheese.”

“I think that the aged Brick sales have increased due to the fact that people are more adventurous and well-traveled – wanting to try new things with bolder flavors,” Widmer continued. “They also like to eat traditional cheeses with a history and a story.”

Widmer’s Cheese Cellars certainly has a story to accompany its award-winning cheeses: Joe Widmer’s grandfather started making Brick cheese with real bricks back in 1922, and the same production method continues today.

The company manufactures roughly 340,000 pounds of Brick cheese annually. Of that, aged Brick accounts for 60,000 pounds and mild Brick accounts for 280,000 pounds.

The aged Brick is shelf-cured for 10 days and washed by hand daily with a microbial solution. It is then packed in parchment paper to hold moisture and in foil – which allows air in – so the bacteria can continue to ripen as the cheese gets older.

“We like to say this cheese is ‘ready to eat’ at six to eight weeks, and reaches peak or full flavor at four to five months,” Widmer continued.

Widmer’s mild Brick is kept in the curing room for just three days and is dipped in a bacterial solution. It’s then vacuum-packed where it will establish more flavor with time, but not the intense flavor or earthiness of the aged variety.

Consumers Outside Midwest: What Is Brick Cheese?
While most Wisconsin residents are familiar with Brick cheese, those across the state line typically draw a blank.

“It was difficult to sell Brick outside the state of Wisconsin for years, as people wondered what the hell Brick cheese was,” Widmer said. “Through marketing efforts, awards and some really good distributors with a great sale force, we have been able to move into new markets.”

Brick cheese is not as familiar beyond the Midwest, there’s a large market available to capture for those who sell it, said Luke Buholzer, vice president of sales for Klondike Cheese, Monroe, WI.

“Currently, Brick is a very regional cheese that is not very well-known outside the Upper Midwest,” Buholzer said.

“Brick is a very versatile cheese in the ways it can be used, so it’s found equally in homes and restaurants,” he continued. “It has wonderful melting qualities for almost any dish, with a well-rounded and mild flavor that appeals to almost anyone.”

It’s also versatile in the ways that it can be used – sliced for sandwiches, incorporated in many cooking applications, or enjoyed for everyday snacking, Buholzer continued.

Klondike produces mild Brick, typically consumed within six weeks of the make day.

“The cheese holds up quite well for longer periods, but is usually eaten or used while still relatively young,” Buholzer said.

Challenging Sell To Retailers; Snack Size, Flavors Are Trending
Because of the yearly increase in specialty cheese varieties being produced, creating competition in the specialty cheese category never seen before, selling Brick cheese to retailers is a challenge, Widmer said.

“We are still in many of the same stores that we have always been in, but there are a lot more choices for the consumer and this does slow sales somewhat,” he said.

The company uses specialty-focused distributors which in turn, work with higher-end retailers to sell the cheese.

One celebrated retailer selling Widmer’s Brick is Ann Arbor, MI-based Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, including Zingerman’s Delicatessen, Zingerman’s Creamery, and Zingerman’s Bakehouse.

Founding partner Ari Weinzweig said he grew up eating cheese bearing the label “Brick,” but had nothing in common with the real thing.

“What I got was some sort of factory insta-cheese facsimile, shipped from factory to food store within days of making, rubbed with orange food coloring to replicate the traditional washed rind that’s supposed to be on the cheese,” he said.

“Real Brick has a heady aroma and modestly full flavor that will almost assuredly keep Brick from ever being the most popular cheese in town, but cheese aficionados who swoon over the washed rind offerings from Europe should try this all-American original,” Weinzweig said.

“So buy Brick, I tell you – it’s our heritage, it’s endangered and above all else, it’s good,” he continued.

Like most foods, trends go toward convenience, said Teena Buholzer, marketing director for Klondike Cheese.

Trends lean towards snack-pack sizes, meal kits and individual servings instead of large blocks of cheese.

I think snack size cheese is a big trend right now, Widmer agreed, but is currently not offering snack-size portions. However, he said consumers are really into flavored styles.

We started making a Pepper Brick, which sells very well, and our Caraway aged Brick that we’ve been making for years has also seen an increase in sales, Widmer continued.

While the future of the overall specialty cheese industry looks rosy and assured, Brick manufacturers face unique challenges – competition and trying to sell a relatively obscure cheese.

“cheese aficionados who swoon over the washed rind offerings from Europe should try this all-American original. So buy Brick, I tell you – it’s our heritage, it’s endangered...”
—Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s

“Competition gets more fierce as the years go by,” Widmer said. “There are more and more specialty artisan cheeses developed every year, and they all need retail space to survive.”

I think the future looks bright for specialty cheese makers because artisan cheese – like wine – has become a big thing with the general public these days, Widmer continued. However, it’s a tough market for newcomers, and we’re very lucky to be an established artisan cheese producer.



Cheese Reporter and Moira Crowley welcomes letters and comments regarding the above story. Comments should be sent to: Moira Crowley by e-mail to mcrowley@cheesereporter.com

 

 

 

 

Moira Crowley has been Specialty Cheese Editor of Cheese Reporter since 2015. She has over 15 years experience covering the dairy industry through her work at Cheese Reporter. Her contributions to Cheese Reporter are read and referenced throughout the world.
For more information, call 608-316-3793 mcrowley@cheesereporter.com.


 

Other Special Features Written by Moira include:

American Cheese Month Donations To American Cheese Education Foundation Benefit Entire Artisan Industry
September 14, 2018

Investment in Salary, Education Required To Find & Keep Qualified Cheese Mongers
July 20, 2018

Growing Market Demand for US Parmesan Due To Better Quality, More Usage Options
April 6, 2018

Staying Relevant To Tech-Savvy, Goal Driven Gen Z Means Dairy Must Nourish Body, Mind
April 6, 2018

Ghee Whiz! Health-Conscious Consumers Finding Clarified Butter As Superfood
October 6, 2017

More soon to be added.